On a clear summer morning in 429 BC, the Athenian admiral Phormio cruised the northern coast of the Corinthian Gulf, stalking a Corinthian-led fleet sailing parallel to them along the southern coast. Phormio was based at the Athenian-controlled city of Naupactus, nestled strategically in the upper “teeth of the Corinthian Gulf,” commanding the Strait of Rion through which all shipping, to and from Corinth, had to pass. (W & W) Naupactus had been in Athenian hands since 455 BC when they settled the Messenians there after the Third Messenian War. In the present Peloponnesian War, Naupactus was the recruiting ground for the Athenians of Messenian hoplites willing to fight their former masters, the Spartans. *The Messenians made up a significant portion of the helot/slave population of Sparta*

Battle of Naupactus
Attributed to Albert Anker (1831-1910), Greek battle plan, ca. 1900. Watercolor and pen. © Graphic Arts Collection

Naupactus was a strategic key to the Corinthian Gulf and a logistical base of operations for the western theater of the war. From the start of the war in 431 BC, the naval station at Naupactus provided a base to blockade the Strait of Rion. It was Athenian SOP during their age of empire to station one Strategos with a squadron of twenty triremes at Naupactus. (Athens, the Locrians and Naupactus) North of Naupactus, the Spartan admiral Cnemus landed a force of a thousand heavy-armed Peloponnesian infantry and combined with allied Ambaciots, Leucadians, Anactorians, Molossians, Chaonians, and Epirots to lead a campaign against Acarnania, allied to Athens. The Corinthians and Sicyonians, allied to the Peloponnesians, prepared a force to sail west from Corinth, passing Naupactus to make a junction with Cnemus on the west coast of Acarnania to support the Spartan land campaign. This was the fleet Phormio stalked. (Thucydides, 2: 83-84)

Map of the Peloponnesian War
Map of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC). Evonne Stella De Roza (CC-BY-NC-SA)

Phormio watched as the Corinthian fleet snaked its way along the coast approaching the Strait of Rion. He wanted to wait for the Corinthians to enter the strait and attack them midway. The Corinthians thought they had left Corinth without the notice of the Athenians, but they became aware of the small Athenian fleet shadowing them to the north. The Corinthians were in no way prepared for a naval battle. Their fleet consisted of forty-seven ships, most of them equipped as military transports for the Acarnanian campaign. The Corinthians approached Patrae on their left and cut north to transit the strait. Phormio signaled his fleet to sortie and meet them midway. (Thucydides, 2: 83-84)

Contemporary Reconstruction of Trireme
Contemporary Reconstruction of a Trireme. The “Olympias.” © Imperium Romanum

The sound of a trireme could be heard from a great distance. It had a rhythmic, measured quality, resembling a distant drum. Each stroke produced two distinct sounds: a deep, percussive thud of wood hitting water, followed by a rushing surge. Whumpff! Whroosh! These sounds were so familiar to the Greeks that they had specific names for them. They referred to the splash as pitylos and the rush as rhothios. The beat reverberated across the water, drawing the ships nearer. The steady, pulsating rhythm, was akin to the heartbeat of a giant.

Soon, other sounds emerged in sync with the oar strokes: the shrill, musical notes of pipes, the rhythmic commands of the coxswain encouraging the crew, and the deep chants of the rowers. The ship itself added to the cacophony, with its lumber and rigging creaking and groaning. As the triremes surged ahead, the steering oars and bronze rams hissed like snakes as they cut through the water. In the final moments, as the red-rimmed eyes on the prow fixed their gaze on you, the oar strokes resembled thunder. Then, the ship either bore down on you or veered away in search of other targets.

Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy.
Relief depicting a trireme
Relief depicting a trireme. © Catalogue of the Acropolis Museum

From excavations done at Piraeus of neosoikoi (ship sheds or hangars), we have an idea of the dimensions of a trireme. Triremes were about 125 to 135 feet in length, beam about 10 to 13 feet, and draught three to four feet. (Warfare History Network) The triremes’ propulsive power was achieved by the grueling work of 170 oarsmen arranged in three tiers along each side of the vessel, 31 in the top tier, 27 in the middle, and 27 in the bottom. The hull comprised thin shell planks joined edge-to-edge, stiffened by the keel and light traverse ribs. The trireme could reach speeds greater than 7 knots (8 miles per hour, or 13km/hr) and perhaps 9 knots under oars. The Aegean predator was armed with a bronze-clad ram that extended from the keel at or below the waterline and was designed to pierce the light hulls of enemy warships. (Britannica)

Close-up of "The Lenormant Relief"
Close-up of “The Lenormant Relief.” © Catalogue of the Acropolis Museum

At dawn, as Phormio intended, the two fleets met mid strait. The Corinthians took a radial formation, lining their ships in a great circle with their prows facing outward, holding their five best vessels in the center as a reserve. They also positioned their light craft in the middle for protection. The Athenians formed in line astern and sailed around the enemy circle, feigning attack and progressively squeezing the Corinthians into an ever-tightening circle. They continued this standoff into the early afternoon when the gulf winds began to pick up. Phormio felt the sea breeze on his face and watched with satisfaction as the Corinthian formation fell to pieces as ships were displaced out of formation and began to run into each other. At the height of confusion, Phormio signaled the attack. (Weapons & Warfare)

Battle of Naupactus
Battle of Naupactus. © HistoryMaps

The Athenian fast movers at once went for maximum speed and aimed their rams at the enemy’s hulls. The goal was to outmaneuver the enemy for a better attack angle. If ramming wasn’t possible, triremes got as close to the enemy vessel as possible and used grappling hooks and boarding planks to pull the ships together. Marines then boarded and engaged in hand-to-hand combat. But in this instance, it was a lopsided victory for the Athenians. They sank every ship encountered and captured twelve in flight. (Weapons & Warfare)

Phormio’s victory boosted Athenian morale and reaffirmed their naval superiority, crucial for maintaining their empire. For the Peloponnesians, the defeat was a setback that underscored their limitations in naval engagements against the more experienced and tactically competent Athenian fleet. The Battle of Naupactus highlighted the critical role of naval power in the Peloponnesian War and the strategic insight of Athenian commanders like Phormio. After the battle, the Peloponnesians sailed away to lick their wounds after the humiliating defeat, but they were by no means finished. They sent fleet after fleet and lost thousands in the Aegean until they got it right, culminating in the Battle of Aegospotami 24 years later, in 405 BC.


Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War. Translated by Rex Warner. UK: Penguin Classics, 1954.

Hale, John. Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy. UK: Viking, 2009.

Badian, E. “Athens, the Locrians and Naupactus.” The Classical Quarterly 40, no. 2 (1990). JSTOR.

Encyclopedia Britannica, December 23, 2015. https://www.britannica.com/technology/trireme

Warfare History Network. “The Greek Trireme.” https://warfarehistorynetwork.com/the-greek-trireme/

Weapons and Warfare. “Battles of Naupactus and Chalcis (429, summer) – Peloponnesian War.” November 8, 2015. https://weaponsandwarfare.com/2015/11/08/battles-of-naupactus-and-chalcis-429-summer-peloponnesian-war/

Contemporary Reconstruction of Trireme. © Imperium Romanum.

The Liberation of Greece. © Graphic Arts Collection.

The Lenormant Relief. © Catalogue of the Acropolis Museuem.

Battle of Naupactus. © HistoryMaps.

Map of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC). © World History Encyclopedia.



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